Gene Clark always hated to fly.
The Byrds’ first UK tour had been a disaster, from the moment they stepped off the plane, when they were served a writ by the British band The Birds, who felt that their name was too similar to avoid confusion. The band had been hated by British audiences for their apparent aloofness and the fact that they never spoke on stage, most of them had got sick, the sound engineers had been unable to get the balance right in their live shows, and the single they were there to promote, a version of Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do, had struggled on the charts thanks to Cher having released a rival version. The music press were also out for blood, seeing the band’s billing as “America’s answer to the Beatles” as an unwelcome insinuation that the “British Invasion” was over and America could produce her own bands again. Shows had to be cancelled due to illness, while others were cancelled due to lack of ticket sales.
The result was a tour that was described in the Melody Maker as “flopsville” and “very, very dull”, and which led to Chris Hillman, the band’s bass player, later doing a desperate PR interview for the British music press in which he effectively apologised for everything about their shows.
The only positives for the band had come during their time in London. The shows there had been as unpopular as anywhere, but they’d been able to hang out with the Beatles and introduce them to the music of Crosby’s new obsession, Ravi Shankar, and had spent more time with the Rolling Stones, who they’d met earlier that year when the Stones were in LA.
In particular, Gene Clark had tossed a few musical ideas around with Brian Jones, and had come up with a melody and a few lines about their awful trip, but he put the ideas aside when they returned to LA, as they had an album to record.
Their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, provided them with another hit single and showcased Clark as the dominant creative figure in the band, with all but one of the originals being written by him (and two more Clark songs were dropped for cover versions, due to the other band members’ resentment over Clark’s prominence on the album). It also marked the end of the band’s relationship with Terry Melcher, who fell out with the band over publishing rights, and over his continued attempts to replace the band members with session musicians (he cut a track of It’s All Over Now Baby Blue with session musicians playing a Jack Nitzsche arrangement, and tried to get McGuinn to overdub guitar on it to turn it into a “Byrds” track).
While they toured in support of the new album, as part of a Dick Clark package tour, the Byrds took another look at the song Gene Clark had started working on about how much he hated their trip to the UK. Clark already had the basic song worked out, but McGuinn and Crosby helped him polish it. The song was originally titled Six Miles High, as both a reference to the height of the plane that flew the band to the UK and a drug reference, but it was changed to Eight Miles High in order to sound a bit more like the Beatles’ Eight Days A Week. Crosby helped Clark finish off the song, and suggested they go for a sound somewhere between Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane, and McGuinn responded by coming up with a guitar part that was essentially the main musical motif from Coltrane’s India played on his twelve-string, with a few high, vaguely sitar-y, notes thrown in. McGuinn has since claimed that the idea of the lyrics came from him, but only since Clark’s death, and Crosby has always backed Clark’s claim to have originated the song.
The band’s original attempt at recording the song, which Crosby still argues is the superior version, was not released by Columbia, ostensibly because it was recorded at a studio they didn’t own. In truth, though, both the original version and the eventual single, both produced by Allen Stanton, are nearly identical, both featuring stellar performances from everyone involved. Over what is by far the best drum part Michael Clarke (never the most competent of drummers) ever played, Hillman provides a steady bass throb, Crosby slashes the rhythm guitar part, and McGuinn plays what is (if you haven’t heard the Coltrane piece from which he’s “borrowing”) some staggeringly inventive guitar, completely unlike anything else in the pop music world at the time. Freed from Terry Melcher’s thin AM sound, the recording has more bass end than anything they’d done before, and over the top McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sing the song’s lyrics about a “rain, grey town” where “nowhere is there love to be found” in gorgeous three-part harmony.
It should have been the Byrds’ biggest hit, but a combination of factors including the experimental nature of the guitar part, a lack of promotion from Columbia, and a radio ban (which started several weeks after the single had been released, but certainly didn’t help matters) ensured it didn’t quite make the US top ten.
And nor would any further Byrds singles. The same month that Eight Miles High was released, Gene Clark announced he was quitting the Byrds, and once he was gone the band never had another top ten hit.
The single biggest reason for Clark quitting the group was that he didn’t want to travel with them any more — ever since he was a child, he’d been terrified of flying.
Eight Miles High
Composer: Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby
Line-up: Gene Clark (vocals, tambourine), Roger McGuinn (vocals, twelve-string guitar), David Crosby (vocals, rhythm guitar), Chris Hillman (bass, vocals), Michael Clarke (drums)
Original release: Eight Miles High/Why The Byrds, Columbie 4-43578
Currently available on: Fifth Dimension Columbia Legacy CD
It’s an incredible song, isn’t it? I’ve still never heard anything quite like it; and the “Fifth Dimension” album is amazing, even with the couple of duff tracks near the end. God, the Byrds…
Yeah, it’s my favourite of the Byrds’ records, though I’m not as big a fan of the rest of the album as you — basically, for me, I like the Byrds when Gene Clark or Gram Parsons are writing for them, and am not as impressed with the rest of their stuff…
I understand; Gene Clark was a pretty fantastic composer and vocalist. However, the title track of “Fifth Dimension” may be my all time favorite Byrds song; I love everything about it, the playing, the vocals, what’s being said in the lyrics. You keep sending me back to these songs, Andrew…
That was a good read!
“Eight Miles High” is a song that I admire, but I don’t really like it that much. I’m sure one reason is because it’s been played to death on the radio, but I always thought the track was a bit of a mess. I agree that McGuinn plays a brilliant guitar part though.
I think Crosby only wrote 2 or 3 lines for it. The rest is pretty much all written by Gene Clark, as I understand it. McGuinn played a big part in the arrangement, obviously. I know I’m in the minority in my view, but I don’t consider this to be one of Gene Clark’s best songs.